Comment: Make the past your new beginning

Luxury Island Villa Home In The Tropics Along The Coastline At Sunrise
Luxury Island Villa Home In The Tropics Along The Coastline At Sunrise. (ShutterWorx/Getty Images)

Guests love heritage hotels. Right? To tread in the footsteps of celebrities who once stayed there, to feel part of a legend still in the making and to look through the window over some of the most iconic city sights, that is the magic of a heritage hotel. 

The truth is, though, that at the highest luxury level, these buildings demand a lot of re-modelling and design from time-to-time in order to retain their premium mystique. Whether the task is to convert an under-utilised piece of old real estate or rejuvenate a tired grande dame, the result must be a unique hotel. 

This means design is especially important in adding value and helping to create the difference that will determine guest loyalty, and this requires a business plan which from the beginning includes design narrative, supported of course by the numbers. 

Tread Softly

The refurbishment of a heritage hotel or the conversion of a much-loved historic property into a hotel takes a lot of thought, sensitivity and, ultimately, courage. Walking in the haloed footsteps of revered architects and seeking to translate legacy into future meaning, is a high wire act. On the one hand, lifestyles have changed and guest expectations have evolved accordingly.  

On the other, these same guests want an experience that makes them feel as if everything is as glamorous as ever it was. One of the most touching things I have overheard was when I was in the lobby lounge of a world-famous hotel that had just re-opened after a major redesign. Two ladies, clearly regulars, were sharing their thoughts on the work. “My dear,” said one, “Isn’t it wonderful? They haven’t changed anything at all!” In fact, the lobby had been re-modelled, new timber panelling introduced to match the existing, the marble floor changed, the colour palette altered and new furniture introduced. So how did the designers achieve this beguiling tour de force?

Learn the Building

Gaining an understanding of the building, its context and how it has lived is an essential prerequisite. It can also be one of the most fascinating parts of a project, stripping back the layers, rooting through archives, getting to know what’s there and deciding what’s worth retaining or repurposing. 

While hotels need to move on, don’t waste the past! Besides, recycling is – usually – good for our environment and repurposing may offer charming back stories. Then, the trick is to put all this learning away in your mental drawer and start planning a hotel for the future. I always liken this phase to a home decorated with ancestral portraits. You are very fond of the paintings and you may want to tell visitors at length about your ancestors’ fabulous exploits, but would you really like to live with them? 

From Purpose to Storytelling

My advice to clients is always to create a design with substance and, in this way, achieve longevity. In addition to legacy and context, this means starting with an understanding of how your building needs to perform for your guests and re-planning the interiors as necessary. As this plan is clarified, the details of the narrative can start to weave through the design becoming a source for further inspiration.  

We have recently been blessed to work on a project that exemplifies this - Matild Palace, a Luxury Collection Hotel, in Budapest. The property was originally completed in 1902, commissioned by the Archduchess of Austria as an apartment building which went on to house a grand café that became the haunt of famous European artists and musicians. All the best ingredients were here, and we conceived a narrative in which the Duchess returns to Budapest to revive the palace by transforming it into a luxury hotel. Friends are invited to stay, dine and bathe, artists gather and the Duchess makes it a home.

It Takes Collaboration and Commitment

Successfully transporting this story into a luxury 21st Century hotel demanded a number of decisions about what to keep, change and add. Two new floors of loft-style bedrooms were added (for the Duchess’s artistic friends) and the basement was opened-up to create an ethereal spa (in this city with such a strong bathing tradition). The dining area is entirely new but the interiors of the café have in fact been taken back to how they once were and a rooftop space with 360 degree city views was discovered and re-born as the Duchess’s “secret” bar for her most favoured friends.

We were fortunate in a client who was passionate about the project, a hotel brand that was a strong partner for our aspirations, the property’s location at the gateway to the Elisabeth Bridge over the Danube, a city which loves its palaces, and historical context. Matild Palace opened at the end of June. From day one, it felt as if “she had been there forever” and I am sure the hotel will have a very long life to come.

Maria Vafiadis is the founder of MKV Design and is part of the Inner Circle, a group of industry leaders and innovators we have brought together to help us contribute to debate in the sector